So I finally made it out to see the Hitchhiker's Guide movie at the fabulous Cinerama, a theater that fully deserves the "rama" after its name. (Tangentially, I'm pretty sure that everything in life is better with "o-rama" after it's name.)
This review is easy on the spoilers, but will ultimately encourage you to go out and give it a shot. If you want to be completely surprised (She's a guy! Vader is Luke's father!), you probably shouldn't read this.
Anyway, I've been hearing some pretty grim stuff. "Terrible," declared my brother, and others had told me that it was an abuse of the material. A widely-circulated story accused it of having no sense of timing. But in the same way that I'll see Episode III, like it or not, because there are some bits of childhood that just have to be watched. Somehow, I heard just enough about I, Robot to miss that one. Fortunately.
Maybe my expectations were too low. Maybe I was replaying a different movie in my head. But I really liked it--which surprised me, because I'm all too often a purist about stuff. It can't possibly be the same thing as the books, or the TV show, or the radio series (all of which I, to variable extents, loved), much less the computer game (not so loved). That's partially because, well, the various series aren't consistent.
The best of the jokes recur between series. The same places are seen again and again, in various places, and the core characters are fairly consistent. But except for that, it's a fairly wild ride, and new bits come pretty much out of nowhere in the various episodes.
The movie is true to that eclectic schema. It has a new theme song (a big musical number!), a newly expanded role for Vogons, a vague love theme (yeah, it's Hollywood) and a desperate attempt to make the movie hang together in some sort of logical sequence that doesn't depend on fortuitous explosions or the deus ex machina that is the infinite improbability drive.
Speaking of which, the work with the Drive is very possibly some of the most inspired in the movie. It is, indeed, rather Improbable. And involves sock monkeys, once, and generally gives the sense that the drive works on principles of physics that are just plain weird.
The actors all get it. Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman) is an inspired selection, as is Mos Def (as a truly brilliant Ford). Zaphod, played by Sam Rockwell, is the President of the Galaxy played as a current President of the US, and is rolling-on-the-floor funny.
In general, the look and feel of the movie is nicely crisp. It is a Major Hollywood Production, which is both good and bad, with clever things like "Set Design" and "Special Effects" (which were both largely beyond the original BBC TV production). The cleverest bit of the old BBC series was the hand-drawn "computer displays" from the Guide; the new version pays respectful homage to its retro look while taking into account the existence of the iPod, contemporary visual design, and a 90s aesthetic. Deep Thought is, I think, a giant TiVo, which was a profound decision.
That said, it's not perfect. Some parts make very little sense, even for this movie (what's with the weird John Malkovitch scene?). Periodically, the silliness seems to overwhelm even the movie, which staggers and reorients.
Obsessive fans will love the Star Wars reference, the fluid and free invocation of British TV history, and the various cameos: look for Douglas Adams' face, the original Marvin from the TV series. New fans will watch as it flies by, and will get about two-thirds of the jokes-- but will probably enjoy the whole. Lord of the Rings it isn't--we won't see entire airplanes filled with giggling Hitchhiker's readers--but it's a good shot for what it is.
Oh, and stick around through the credits.
This movie has been rated with 3.5 stars on the Classic Hitchhiker's Quote List Scale:
1* And me, with a pain in all the diodes down my left side ..
2* Hey, is this guy boring you? I'm from another planet!
3* In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men and women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.
4* Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.
I just came out of (finally!) seeing "Eternal Sunshine." I'd kind of thought about it, I guess, but I still hadn't forgiven Kaufmann for the masturbatory (can I say that on a blog?) mess that was Adaptation. Yes, he was willing to tell some awful truths about the creative process, ones that any grad student knows too well--but the movie was stilted, strange1.
And I knew very little about the director, and Jim Carrey isn't necessarily a positive ad for a thougtful movie. This movie is just as much a Jim Carrey movie as it is an Elijah Woods movie. And that's without the pointy ears.2.
So--without spoilers, without discussion of the stunning editing and directing and design and storytelling; without commenting on its brilliant meditiations on how relationships are, and how they end--I will simply shout, as loud as I can, "Go see it!"
3 Yes, they liked it more than Barbarella, the Musical even!
I just saw Goodbye, Lenin in the theater on Saturday, It's a recent German film, about the insanity of life when the Berlin Wall fell, and the many changes that happened when a stable system collapses in on itself. Despite that, it's a relaxed comedy (ranging toward farce, at times: I'd place it in about the same genre as The Dish , if a little more thoughtful.). A good film, a painstaking film, and one worth seeing. In German, with subtitles.
[Slight spoilers and discussion follow]
In the movie, we see life in East Germany before and after the wall falls. Under Communism, life is fairly predicable: students go to school, eat food, learn pioneer anthems, and try to sort out the propaganda from the news, often poorly. Then, in 1989, everything becomes different. The government collapses, the Berlin Wall falls, and East Germans wander west to discover the joys of a new world.
At the time, Aleks, the protagonist, is just starting his adult life. His mother has been a strong patriot ("married to the state") since his father fled the country at a conference into the arms of a comely West German, and has dedicated herself to teaching and raising a new generation of strident communists. She had a heart attack, though, and no one got to her in time--throwing her into a coma for eight months.
She misses the tremendous social changes entirely.
In those months, Aleks gets a job; his sister drops out of her college economics program (and who wouldn't, under the circumstances); and the old communist groceries are replaced with new supermarkets. Everyone redecorates with colors; they buy cars; they live a newer, freeer life.
Aleks' mother recovers. She must be shielded, however, from surprise: another heart attack might kill her. Presumably, the fall of her beloved government and the end of her government teaching job would kill her. So Aleks goes on a mission to simulate life from another world.
From eight months earlier.
The lengths he goes to--and the ways that the world's events keep grinding on--are what makes up the comedy of the film. The farce comes of the increasingly-desperate attempts to keep the seams from unravelling.
But I was fascinated by one thread that the filmmakers pursued skillfully. Not since Hedwig  have I seen so thorough a portrayal of the sacrafices that come of a system changing. In Hedwig's case, of course, the fall of the wall is ironic. In this case, it's a little bit melancholic: a world has ended, even if it wasn't a particularly good world. The people who had figured out a way to surive--party members, teachers--are stunned, confused, lost. The new world is filled with shining cars and Coca-Cola--but it's also got empty apartments and a newly-impoverished population.
It's not an indictment of communism (the movie is fairly neutral, I think), nor is it an indictment of capitalism. The movie isn't even against change: there's a lot of joy in the crowds when the walls fall, and we see various bits of video enough to know that the people truly are excited about the new opportunities, the new world.
But it's still hard when your job, when your life, has been to hold up a system that's now gone. For those people, Aleks provides an invaluable service: he lets them hold on, a little longer, and perhaps helps them ease the transition.
Both worlds--East Berlin, before and after--are beautifully fleshed out. The costuming and decorations are precise, painstaking. It really does look like 19892, and it really does look like a communist-era apartment. It's the transition between the two, at dizzying speed but with tremendous care, that gives this movie its strength.
1 "Six inches forward, five inches back..."
2 Except for that t-shirt. IMDB claims it's a joke, others claim it's an error. I was weirded out by seeing the "Matrix" on a 1989 t-shirt.
I don't know many people who would sit in the front row of a movie about Swedish ethnography and laugh their heads off. But I went to see Kitchen Stories this weekend with the Dane, and we loved every minute of it. If I ever teach an ethnography course myself, I'll have to make this film required viewing1.
This film--a surreal, gentle comedy; a relaxed buddy movie that follows many of the standard formulas--works surprisingly well. I'm pretty sure you don't have to be an ethnographer to appreciate it, although anyone with a particular interest in naturalistic studies might get a particular kick.
While I don't thnk the movie can be particularly "spoiled", I'll tuck the rest of this review under the extended section, just in case you want to see the film as naively as possible. (I will forewarn you that it's in Swedish and Norwegian, with English subtitles.)
1 I just taught a day of an Organizational Information Systems class, talking about analyzing interview data. This movie would have been more fun--and would have provided fodder for the students to discuss.
In the beginning of the movie, we learn (truthfully) that 1950's Swedish home researchers have already successfully redesigned the housewife's kitchen to be more efficient. Now, one researcher proudly announces, in the course of one year, she will no longer have to walk to the Congo in her kitchen. Thanks to their improvements, Northern Italy will suffice. Apparently, this was established through many hours of careful observation of housewives as they worked, watching their every move--from sink to table, from towel to counter--and tracking their steps.
The researcher running the project is now trying to analyze, quantitatively, the habits of single men. As such, he is sending his researchers into the field: they will sit, silently, in bachelor kitchens, atop eight-foot-high chairs. They will watch the single men, and the men will ignore them. They will live in portable trailers right outside the apartments. This is how these Swedish researchers will spend a Norwegian winter.
Now, I know a few people who have done truly heroic ethnographic work. If I understand their descriptions correctly, Cleidson De Souza sat in a cubicle with coders and developers, watching them for hours, and tracking what resources they used, and in what contexts. David Gibson spent months watching meetings, tracking every time that one person stopped speaking and another person started. And Keith Hampton sat about in a basement in Canadian suburbs for months, interviewing families about computer use and learning who was talking to whom.
These people have nothing on this project. A housewife might spend a lot of time running about her apartment; she has children to take care of and a family to feed. And so she's likely to start ignoring the researcher after a few hours, and they'll both get to work.
The same is not true of a single man in the Nowegian winter. There's not a lot to do if you're a farmer out in the country in winter. You drink coffee with a friend, and you smoke, and you wait for the thaw2.
Folke is the researcher assigned to watch Isak, one such graying farmer. Isak doesn't trust Folke: while he has volunteered for the experiment, he's not too happy with this invader in his kitchen. And so he hides himself in various ways, cooking in his bedroom, for example.
It goes nearly without saying that the two men will find a connection as the movie progresses; that the barrier of Isak's distrust and of Folke's professionalism will somehow be breached.
There are a set of, I think, imprortant lessons for the budding ethnographer:
There are also a couple of interesting reminders of cultural differences. Sweden was neutral during WWII; Norway was invaded and occupied. The Norse were less than happy about that; they blamed the Swedish for sitting by impassively. And so a Swede neutrally observing a Norwegian inside his home might rub the latter the wrong way.
While I don't expect that this situation recurs in any environments I might see, there are some parallels. Ethnographers often live in a different world than their subjects; misunderstandings are common--and a usual part of the process.3
Two thumbs up.
2 Garrison Keillor likes to talk about Norwegian Bachelor Farmers, sitting around at the Sidetrack Tap at Lake Woebegone, smoking and just occasionally talking. The silent stoicisim of Scandanvians is a major theme to this movie.
3 One of my friends, a biologist working on low-level genetic processes, was observed for a few months by an anthropologist apparently looking at how laboratories handle the notions of "sex" and "gender." While the anthropologist gave them occasional reports, the lab's consensus response was something like huh?. They didn't see, or believe, that the notion of sex was relevant to what they were doing at all.
I'm not in a position to take sides in the debate.